Why the 'rules' of racism are different for Arabs
By Brian Whitaker, Guardian Unlimited UK, 18 August 2000
Arabs are the only really vicious racial stereotypes still considered acceptable in Hollywood, writes Middle East editor Brian Whitaker

"Stop it, you dirty little Arab!" My grandmother always used to say that when I did something disgusting, like picking my nose or flicking food at my younger brother.

It was a long time ago, of course. In those days children were taught rhymes like "Ten Little Nigger Boys" and recited them to admiring aunties.

We have certainly come a long way since then. Oddly, though - and I have noticed this particularly since starting to write about the Middle East for the Guardian - there are people who seem happy to talk about Arabs in terms that they would never use when talking about black people. It doesn't occur to them that this is racist.

Last week, Rules of Engagement, a film about a siege at the American embassy in Yemen, arrived in Britain after earning millions of dollars in the United States. It has been described as the most racist film ever made against Arabs by Hollywood.

The Arab characters - in this case, Yemenis - are, without exception, portrayed as deceitful, bloodthirsty fanatics. The "hero", an American Marines colonel, massacres 83 of them, and the film suggests that this sort of thing is justified for the greater good of America.

Interestingly, though, the heroic colonel is played by a black actor (Samuel L Jackson) who appears totally integrated into American society. Nobody mentions his colour or appears to treat him differently because of it. In that respect only, the film is less racist than many others. Since Rules of Engagement was released, several critics have observed that Arabs are the only really vicious racial stereotypes still considered acceptable in Hollywood.

Possibly these complaints are an over-reaction to what, after all, is a film-maker's fantasy rather than the reality. But perhaps not.

On the day that Rules of Engagement arrived in Britain, the National Transportation Safety Board in Washington issued its first report on the crash of EgyptAir flight 990 off Nantucket last October.

What should have been a methodical, scientific, investigation has turned into a highly charged clash of cultures between Egypt and the USA.

As the plane fell from the sky, the co-pilot repeated an Arabic phrase, "tawakilt 'ala Allah" (I rely on God). This phrase, picked up by the cockpit voice recorder, was leaked to the American media, who variously described it as "a prayer" or a "chant", fuelling the theory that the co-pilot was an Islamic fundamentalist who had deliberately crashed the plane.

The Egyptians were furious and pointed out that the phrase is routinely used by Muslims, not just fundamentalists, when facing difficult situations. They accused the American investigators of making the co-pilot a scapegoat, and being reluctant to explore the possibility of a mechanical failure in the American-built Boeing 767.

It certainly looked like an attempt to fit the co-pilot into Hollywood's current stereotype of the fanatical Arab, but it didn't wash. When the suicide theory began to look improbable, the investigators re-moulded the co-pilot to fit a much earlier Hollywood stereotype played by Rudolph Valentino in the 1920s - the over-sexed Arab.

The FBI came up with statements from staff at the hotel used by EgyptAir crews in New York saying that the co-pilot was noted for sexually harassing chambermaids and had once exposed himself through the hotel window. Again, these allegations were leaked to the press.

This, apparently, was meant to imply that the co-pilot had an unstable personality and should not have been allowed to fly. Questioning the relevance of the FBI statements at a Washington press conference last week, an Egyptian journalist asked whether, if that kind of behaviour made someone unfit to control a plane, it did not also make the US president Bill Clinton unfit to control nuclear weapons.

Nobody seems quite sure why anti-Arab racism is considered acceptable when other forms of racism aren't. Some suggest that the political role played by the west in the Middle East helps to legitimise the stereotypes of popular culture, which in turn reinforce government policies.

But I think attitudes to Islam may also be part of the problem. People in the west often assume that Arabs are Muslims (and sometimes vice versa). Hostility towards Islam - mostly based on ignorance - can mean hostility towards Arabs. So perhaps anti-Arabism is not rooted in racial prejudice but religious prejudice. Either way, it's still prejudice.

Readers who have further explanations or suggestions on this topic are welcome to contact me by email: brian.whitaker@guardian.co.uk.
 


 
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